Back in 2006, the Irish writer-director John Carney made a little film called “Once” that rewrote the rules for movie musicals. It was a love story about working musicians, played by working musicians, and the songs welled up naturally in rehearsals, performances, and private moments in between. The thing felt authentic and new, and it rode a tide of audience affection to an Oscar for best song and a successful Broadway staging.
After eight years (and two films unreleased in the United States), Carney has returned with the aptly titled “Begin Again,” another tender-hearted drama set in the indie music world. Rather cruelly, it proves you can’t go home again, especially if you try. The movie seems willfully perverse, as though Carney had taken out everything that felt fresh and non-Hollywood from “Once” and replaced it with time-tested cliché. “Begin Again” is pleasantly predictable if you’re in an undemanding mood. If you’re not, it’s unbearable, like hearing a treasured folk song given a Hot 97 makeover.
Ironically, that’s sort of what the movie’s about — how real artists have to fight the seductions of the big bad music business. “Begin Again” opens with a reluctant Gretta (Keira Knightley) coaxed into performing at a Manhattan open-mike night by a fellow British expatriate, Steve (James Corden). Her delicately plucked ballad about loneliness and subways is drowned out by the patrons’ chatter, but one man is listening, a burned-out record producer named Dan, played by Mark Ruffalo at his most adorably seedy.
Dan drinks too much, is separated from his wife (Catherine Keener, of course ), estranged from his teenage daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), and he just got bounced from the record label he cofounded with partner Saul (Mos Def, credited under his real name, Yasiin Bey). Dan’s at the end of the line, but when he hears Gretta sing, in his mind the instruments around her onstage leap into the air to accompany her.
No, really, they do; it’s a whimsical visual conceit that dares the audience to guffaw. “Begin Again” is about how these two mismatched miserables — Gretta has just been dumped by her boyfriend, a swaggeringly sensitive pop star played by Adam Levine, of “The Voice” — find their groove again by recording an album in the streets of New York. The songs are mostly written by Gregg Alexander, in collaboration with Carney, Danielle Brisebois, and others, and they’re sung by Knightley in a girlish voice reminiscent of Jill Sobule. They’re pretty and very nearly memorable, and the recording montages in alleyways, on rooftops, and on subway platforms have a let’s-put-on-a-show raffishness that almost excuses their calculation.
Yet “Begin Again” keeps coming down with the cutes, especially when CeeLo Green turns up playing a fictionalized version of himself, or when Knightley (who begins the film in an appealingly wary key) starts crinkling her nose in bliss, or when Gretta and Dan walk through Times Square listening to Sinatra and Stevie Wonder on her iPhone. (The movie plays footsie with a potential relationship between the couple, which is just as well, since he is, to quote the sage George Michael, her father figure-preacher teacher.) All these tics will endear “Begin Again” to some audiences while frustrating those who know when they’re being played.
The few times the movie feels like it’s on to something genuine come when we see through the eyes of Steinfeld’s Violet. The young actress has reclaimed some of the stolid grace of her “True Grit” performance and when she picks up an electric guitar in one recording scene and chimes in with exactly what a sullen 14-year-old rocker-girl would play — two chords, ecstatically felt — the once-in-a-lifetime vibe of “Once” again seems within reach. Real people playing real music? It’s harder to fake than you think.